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The Unknown Island review at the Gate Theatre, London – ‘playful and profound’

Thalissa Teixera in The Unknown Island at Gate Theatre, London. Photo: Cameron Slater Thalissa Teixera in The Unknown Island at Gate Theatre, London. Photo: Cameron Slater
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Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago hides a great deal of wisdom and complexity behind the simplicity of his short story, The Unknown Island. The same can be said of Ellen McDougall’s adaptation – the first production that she’s directed at the Gate Theatre since taking on the role of artistic director.

A man asks a king for a boat in order to find an unknown island. A love interest and a dream sequence later, the shaggy dog story resolves with a beautiful vagueness. What’s clear, however, is that it’s much more about the journey than the destination.

This feels almost like a companion piece to the last production McDougall directed at the Gate, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus in 2014. Both are contemporary tales with an ancient feel, and both use the cast as chorus. Narrated by all four actors, the production weaves their voices together.

Thalissa Teixeira is a really compelling presence. There’s something so assured about her performance; she possesses a clarity and purpose that makes for perfect storytelling, while Hannah Ringham, with more of a comic edge and a slightly cynical tone, makes a great contrast.

Under McDougall’s guidance the story’s ancient echoes and the round-the-campfire feeling extend much further than just the play’s tone. At one point, the actors break bread and share wine with audience members – it turns into an act of communion. They talk to us and, for the first time, talk to each other, breaking character for this quasi-religious ceremony, taking storytelling back to its ritualistic roots.

It’s all done with such a playful touch, such a warmth, that its boldness is almost imperceptible. But bold it is. And McDougall, matching her simple directorial style to the story’s quiet profundity, proves that the Gate couldn’t be in better hands.

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Ellen McDougall's playful and profound adaptation of Jose Saramago's short story